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His sculptures are unlike any you’ve seen before in the Church.

Here’s why his journey is just as remarkable

His journey to the gates of the embassy hadn’t been easy. Only a few days earlier, his request for a visa to America had been flatly denied due to expired paperwork. Government workers had even stamped the back of his passport to indicate that he would have to wait six months to reapply. But Nnamdi didn’t have six months. The nonrefundable plane ticket he’d bought in an act of faith was scheduled to leave in a matter of days. This seemingly journey-ending setback should have devastated him, but Nnamdi wasn’t ready to give up quite yet. Instead, he crammed his 6-foot-9 frame into an overnight bus and rode 500 miles to the American embassy in Lagos, arriving on January 16, hoping officials there would grant him a visa—only to find the office closed for the day.

He approached the embassy gates again the next morning, keenly aware that his flight would leave in a matter of hours. As he waited in line, at the forefront of Nnamdi’s mind was a story in Genesis 19 where God temporarily blinds the eyes of wicked men to protect a man named Lot. His prayer now was for God to offer similar aid within the embassy. His prayer now was for God to offer similar aid within the embassy.

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“I would ask Him to blind the eyes of anyone that would examine my documents at the embassy so that they would not see the expired dates, nor the stamp of rejection on my passport,” Nnamdi would later tell Brigham Young University–Hawaii students during a devotional. “Armed with the same faith as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I went back to the embassy with the expired documents. It was reckless and foolhardy, but I didn’t care!”

The plan never should have worked, but it did.

Nnamdi walked out of the embassy with a United States visa, a document that would prove to be his ticket to more than just American soil. He was now one step closer to discovering two very important things: the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and the calling God would give him to bear testimony through art.

Little could he have imagined as his plane touched down in New York that a permanent installation of his art would one day grace a street corner in that very city, emanating calm to hundreds of passersby each day. Or that a gallery in Washington, DC, would proudly display his art, or that a larger-than-life piece would gladden hearts halfway around the world in Changsha, China.

Only God knew then the contributions this young man from Enugu, Nigeria, would make in expanding the perspectives of Latter-day Saints and so many more through art.

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Yes, God’s intervention in Nnamdi Okonkwo’s flight to the US was only the beginning.

On to Hawaii

Nnamdi’s plane ticket may have been to New York, but that wasn’t his final destination. He was heading to the island of Oahu, home of BYU–Hawaii: a school Nnamdi hadn’t heard of before being recruited there but which would serve as an answer to prayer in more ways than he thought.

During his last six years in Nigeria, Nnamdi worked toward one goal: learning to play basketball and getting recruited by an American university. He felt he was running out of options in his home country. At his mother’s insistence, he had pursued his lifelong love of art and graduated with a degree in painting from a college in Nigeria. But he longed for opportunities that he believed were possible only in the US and saw a basketball scholarship as his way to get there.

During those hard years of working for a scholarship, Nnamdi had pleaded with God for help. Faith had always come naturally to him, largely due to his mother, a deeply religious woman who made God a part of her family’s daily lives. At first, Nnamdi’s prayers had been petitions for the financial success he wanted for his family. His father had died when Nnamdi was only 12 years old, and as the eldest son, he had responsibilities to provide for the family. He wanted a scholarship for the sake of his beloved mother and brothers as much as he wanted it for himself.

But as he prayed one night in a moment of great frustration, Nnamdi had an impression that perhaps a spiritual future awaited him in the US as well.

“Please, God,” he later recorded was his prayer, “send me to a college where I will not only get to play basketball and live the American dream but please send me to a place where I will also have the opportunity to learn more about You and draw closer to You so that I can serve You better.”

That new prayer imbued him with a confidence that carried him until God answered with a call from BYU–Hawaii.

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Nnamdi Okonkwo at BYU–Hawaii.

It wasn’t long after Nnamdi’s arrival on the island that his friends and then the missionaries started teaching him the gospel. And yet, despite his prayer for an opportunity to draw closer to God, Nnamdi had some hesitations and didn’t want to join the Church at first.

“I felt terrible because in my mind I would be disowning my religion that has been wonderful to me, everything that my mother taught me,” Nnamdi says. “But the hardest thing for me to get over was the fact that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Even though I had a testimony that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, I just never imagined that there’s going to be a prophet named Joseph Smith. … And, of all places, in America? It just felt too made-up, too contrived.”

Nnamdi wrestled with his conflicted feelings for several months, all the while praying to know if the Church was true. Receiving confirmation from the Spirit that it was, he decided to put his hesitations aside and was baptized six months after arriving in Hawaii.

“Everything doesn’t have to make sense yet for you to let go of the knowledge you … already have,” Nnamdi says, reflecting on that decision. “God speaks to our hearts. [And] even if your father, your mother, [or] everyone is against it, you have to hold on to what you hear in your heart.”

Nnamdi has now been a member of the Church for over 30 years. Throughout that time, he’s seen how the courage to stay true to his heart isn’t just needed in matters of faith; it has also proved essential in matters of art.

Purpose in Clay

Prior to arriving at BYU–Hawaii, Nnamdi had earned a degree in painting. But despite his talent for the medium, he was hesitant to pursue it further, never feeling like “that was what I was born to do.” Now that he was in Hawaii he wanted to explore new mediums, so he signed up for a sculpting class. Just one day in, he was ready to lay his brushes aside.

“It was pretty dramatic. … I put my hand in clay that very first day and it just felt so natural, so good: like I’d finally found what I was sent here to do,” he says.

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So the BYU–Hawaii athlete quickly declared his major in sculpture. One of his fellow students was LeRoy Transfield, a young man from New Zealand who had also come to BYU–Hawaii from humble beginnings. LeRoy remembers Nnamdi being rather quiet as he adjusted to the culture shock of moving to Hawaii, but that changed as time passed and the two became great friends.

That friendship continues to play an important role in the men’s lives today. Out of everyone in their class, LeRoy says he and Nnamdi are the only ones who have stayed committed to being studio artists. LeRoy describes being an artist as an “emotional roller coaster,” and the two college friends have leaned on each other for support during the highs and lows of the ride.

LeRoy has appreciated Nnamdi’s natural disposition for optimism—a trait he noticed about his friend after a mishap in Nnamdi’s college basketball days: He remembers Nnamdi tripping while going up for the final shot of a game and landing flat on his back as the buzzer went off.

“If that were me, I would’ve been walking around sheepishly on campus the next day,” LeRoy says with a laugh. But when LeRoy saw Nnamdi in the hallway, his friend was full of so much optimism, one would have thought he’d played a fantastic game.

“Nnamdi was always good at that ‘fake it till you make it’ type of thing,” LeRoy says. “Even back then he always had this positive attitude about him and his art, even if no one else did.”

As an accomplished artist himself, with sculptures featured at memorial parks across Utah, Martin’s Cove, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and the Newport Beach California Temple, LeRoy has an eye to appreciate the details of Nnamdi’s work.

“From a sculptor’s point of view, I like the way he uses mass to present his ideas. … I really admire him for wanting to get more big pieces out there. And he’s very particular about his patina, which I think really adds to the piece,” LeRoy says, referring to the way Nnamdi applies chemicals to a sculpture to create the desired aged finish.

Beyond technique, LeRoy admires how Nnamdi has stayed true to himself with each piece. “When I look at them, I can see Nnamdi. I can see his African heritage. … [He’s] not trying to pretend to be something he’s not,” he says. “He is very distinct, and that’s what makes him unique and collectible.”

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